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The ‘new hygge’: downshifting for death

Essay | 18 minute read
'Some people can’t get their heads around death. And these people leave a mess after them,' says the author of a book on 'death cleaning'. Christina Patterson reflects on how to plan for the final, inevitable journey with joy (and to remember you'll be travelling light)

‘If there is one thing I have learned from death cleaning,’ says artist Margareta Magnusson, ‘it is that I hate staples.’ She says this in her lovely book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, one of 2018’s surprise bestsellers. It has been hailed as ‘the new hygge’, because it’s from Scandinavia, and must therefore either be about murder or drinking hot chocolate in your hand-knitted socks. But it isn’t about hygge, because it has, you know, a sense of humour, and it isn’t about murder, which you can’t usually plan for. What it is about, of course, but only partly, is death.

‘Some people,’ says Magnusson briskly, ‘can’t get their heads around death. And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal?’ We all have a duty, she says, to think of the people we will leave behind, the people who will have to comb through our papers, and books, and cellars and knicker drawers, and make sure we make this task as easy as we can. It’s always good, she suggests, to do ‘a good, thorough cleaning’ and get rid of things ‘to make life easier and less crowded’. We can do this at any age, but when we’re getting old, we must. ‘Do not ever imagine,’ she says sternly, ‘that anyone will wish – or be able – to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself.’

Magnusson is ‘between eighty and a hundred years old’. I’d guess she’s in her early eighties, born at around the same time as my mother and in roughly the same place. Magnusson is from Gothenburg, on the West Coast of Sweden. My mother spent the first eighteen years of her life in Halmstad, about eighty miles away. Reading Magnusson’s charming, no-nonsense book made me think of her a lot. Swedes are practical and often matter-of-fact. I had never heard of ‘Döstädning’, or ‘death cleaning’, before I came across this book. I didn’t realise it was a thing.  But my mother, I now realise, had been doing it for years.

I was in Rome, trying to find my first home, when I got a call from my brother saying that we had completed the sale of the house, in Surrey, that my mother lived in for fifty-two years. I was born in a hospital round the corner from the flat my parents lived in, in a street called Via delle Belle Arte. It sounded, I thought, like a romantic place to spend the first nine months of my life. A place where artists and sculptors toiled over masterworks before rolling up to the local trattoria for a bottle of chianti and a bowl of spaghetti. There were, it turned out, no trattorias, no cafes, no artists’ studios. There were hardly any residential buildings. There seemed to be just one block of flats and it didn’t match the street address given to me by my aunt. I wanted to check with my mother, of course, but she had been dead for nine months.

My brother got cut off, and there was no reception to call him back. I peered through the railings at the paved area around the building to see if it looked anything like the paved area in the photos of me, smiling in my pram. A young woman came out and I tried to explain, in my bad Italian, that I thought I might have lived there once, but wasn’t sure. The woman gave the kind of shrug you give when you’re late for a meeting and have just been stopped by a chugger. And so I walked away, unable to speak to my brother at a moment we had both wanted and dreaded and not knowing if I’d found the right place. And wondering why the moments in our lives we think will be important almost never go as we plan.

When we cleared my mother’s house, we found shelf after shelf of files and albums with stickers on their spines marked ‘throw out’. Magnusson, it turns out, has been doing this, too. But Magnusson’s box marked ‘throw away’ is a small box of memories, ‘things,’ she says, ‘that have no value to anyone else, but enormous value for me.’ Magnusson had already downsized, when her husband died. When my father died, my mother did not. She lived in a five-bedroom house with an attic. Like Magnusson, she didn’t want to be ‘a nuisance’. When the time comes, she always said: ‘shove me into a care home’. As it turned out, we didn’t need to. When she tripped on a stair and broke her hip, two days after Donald Trump was elected – a shock, she said, that literally made her lose her balance – she was rushed to hospital and died in five weeks.

Like Magnusson, my mother had lived in several countries because of her husband’s job (my father worked for the Foreign Office before he moved the family to Surrey and became a civil servant). Like Magnusson, she had artifacts from those countries that were unusual and meant a lot to her. And like Magnusson, she skied as a young girl in Sweden, as pretty much everyone did. When a lake froze over in Surrey one winter, she found some skates in the attic and we gazed in amazement as she whizzed around. Unlike Magnusson, she never went skiing in a bikini, or at least she never told us if she did. And I’m relieved to say that she didn’t appear to need Magnusson’s advice to ‘save your favourite dildo’ when you’re clearing out, ‘but throw away the other fifteen.’

Like Magnusson, my mother turned her ‘death cleaning’ into something like a full-time job. Almost every evening, she would go through boxes of old letters, reading them and filing them, even sometimes translating them from Swedish for my brother and me to read. She would stick them in transparent plastic sleeves, in blue lever-arch files, and then sigh with satisfaction as she stuck the ‘throw out’ sticker on the spine. She did the same with photo albums. She would flick through them, pulling out the best photos and send them to my brother and me, and to friends. She would even make us special albums. After my father died, I started taking my mother away for holidays and weekends. For my fiftieth, she presented me with an album, inspired by Graham Greene, and with a neat label: ‘Travels with my mum.’

But her enterprise, I have to admit, was flawed. Even while she was clearing photos, she was taking more. My mother took photos of every encounter with me or my brother, every coffee or lunch with a friend. My mother had an awful lot of friends. She filled new albums as she weeded the old ones. The filling up was, I’d say, faster than the clearing out. I took this as a sign that she just couldn’t get enough of life.

Nobody doubts that photos, letters and diaries mean an awful lot to the people they belong to, and sometimes to the people they leave behind. The big question is about the other stuff: the furniture, the pictures, the books, the rugs, the cushions, the ornaments, the pots and pans. Magnusson has a system for this. She gives things away to people she thinks might like them, but is fierce about checking their taste first. She is also keen on auctions. When she downsized, she sold a lot of the furniture and her children are under strict instructions to do the same when she dies, with what’s left. My mother took photos of every room in her house, with notes about where every piece of furniture came from. I am very, very glad that she never found out that the entire contents of her house were valued at £695.

There were things I would have liked to have kept, but I have no room in my flat. My brother took most of the albums. I took a few pictures and a few books. Pretty much everything else went to charity shops, or the dump. Nearly all the pictures I drew, from the age of eighteen months. My toys, my exercise books, my essays, my stories. My mother kept a copy of every newspaper I was ever published in. She had the full Christina Patterson archive. Now toilet paper, or perhaps kitchen roll. If I ever become famous, I’ll kick myself. If I ever become famous, I’ll want to tell my mother. It might go some way in making up for the lack of a grandchild.

Margareta Magnusson (Photo by Alexander Mahmoud)

When grandchildren ‘failed to arrive’ for Magnusson, she would take the box of her children’s baby clothes down from the loft and drop heavy hints. ‘It worked,’ she says. ‘I now have eight.’ My mother never tried the baby clothes. She just announced, at strategic intervals, that she was the only person she knew who didn’t have any grandchildren. I felt for her. I felt for my brother. I felt, most of all, for me. What was I meant to do? Snap my fingers to spirit up a lovely partner, just in time to scoop up any eggs that still might be lurking and turn them into bright, glistening, grandmother-pleasing gold?

Because that’s the thing with all this ‘death cleaning’. You’re meant to do it to make life easier for your children. You’re meant to think of the lovely things you will pass on to them, and to your grandchildren, and make sure you deal with the dross. At least, I told my mother, she had the children, or so-called children, to visit her in hospital and bring her good coffee and tiny Swedish cakes. At least, I didn’t add, she had the children to call the charity shops and drive stuff to the dump. Who the hell, I sometimes wanted to yell, is going to do that for me?

Like most people, I always assumed I would get married and have a family. I thought I would one day ‘upsize’ from a flat to a house. I could, I suppose, sell my flat and buy a big house in somewhere like Siberia. I could, I suppose, ask Hackney Council if they would let me adopt a child that would have to sleep somewhere between my filing cabinet and my desk. That certainly wasn’t what my mother hoped for, or what my friends have done. I have smiled at an awful lot of weddings. I have smiled as I have cuddled my friends’ babies, and eaten meals in their lovely kitchens, or sat in their pretty little gardens sipping wine. I have tried to swallow my envy and pretend it’s all absolutely fine. Sometimes, I have managed it. Sometimes, I haven’t. When one friend told me she was pregnant, I tried to tell her I was happy for her, but what came out was a howl. I had recently been told I had cancer. I just wanted to lie on the floor and scream that it wasn’t fucking fair.

When the cancer came back a second time, I decided I had to go through my stuff. I started clearing my papers. I found a file, of letters and printed out emails, marked ‘Men!’ I wondered who would go through these papers if the operation I was facing went wrong. I decided it would probably be my mother. I really, really didn’t want my mother to read all those emails from all those flaky men. I still couldn’t bring myself to throw them out.

My cousin helped me sort out my books. I have been reviewing fiction and non-fiction for more than twenty-five years and get sent books all the time. I’m surrounded by piles of books I want to read, but won’t. My shelves are full of books I want to read, but won’t. They are also full of books I’ve read and probably won’t read again. This ought to make getting rid of books easy. It doesn’t. When I look at books I haven’t read, I think I can’t bear to let them go before I’ve read them. When I look at books I have read, I think I can’t bear the thought that I might not read them again. It feels like cutting away a chunk of the tissue that holds me together. Lose that chunk, and who knows what might happen? Perhaps my heart would slip out of place?

Sometimes, I have to give boxes of books away, because I also have to be able to move around my flat. When I come back with an empty car, to a study where the vertical books on shelves aren’t half hidden by horizontal piles, I feel a sense of lightness, as if the cogs in my brain have now been unclogged. Then I realize I won’t miss the books I’ve given away. I feel the same about the bags of clothes I occasionally force myself to cart down to Mind. I have a wardrobe full of clothes, but I usually only wear a handful of outfits. I can almost understand why Mark Zuckerburg sticks to his uniform of grey T-shirt and jeans. Life is complex, and sometimes tiring. Let’s simplify what we can.

But when I wander round my flat, which, as a freelance writer I do a lot, I see very little else I’d want to give away. I love my stuff. I really, really love my stuff. I love the refectory table I bought when I got my first flat twenty-five years ago. I love the ladder-back chairs that go round it. I love the little bureau my mother got from her mother, and passed on to me, the small sofa-bed I bought from the Reject Shop, which is now faded but makes me think of some of the sofas in the Carl Larsson pictures my mother grew up with and loved so much. I love the Edwardian bergere suite I saw in a road in Camden, then covered in brown Dralon, which I had reupholstered in a beautiful blue-grey fabric from Laura Ashley and have recently had reupholstered again. This time, in a linen-like fabric called something like ‘biscuit’, because the blue-grey had got grubby, and times change, and fashions change, and we change with them, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say we are brainwashed by shifts in taste.

The bureau given to Christina Patterson by her mother

‘I don’t,’ says Magnusson, ‘want anything that my eyes do not like.’ I feel exactly the same. And in lots of ways, the stuff my ‘eyes like’ hasn’t changed much at all. Everywhere I have lived has, where possible, had white walls and wooden floors, because this is what I grew up with, and what feels like what I might even call a bassline for my soul. The colour has always come from books, and ceramics, and rugs: the rug I bought when I was wandering around Turkey without a guidebook when I was twenty-two, the rug my parents had in Bangkok, the rugs I bought in Damascus six years before the outbreak of the Syrian war. I love these things because they are full of memories, but also because I think they are beautiful. Life has enough ugliness, and I want to see beauty where I can.

Isn’t it enough to go to galleries and see art, or go for a walk and gaze at flowers in a park, and live with ugly, or at least not-beautiful, stuff at home? For me, it isn’t. I want to have beautiful things. I want to own beautiful things. They may or may not have any monetary value, but I want to know that some of the beautiful things on this planet are mine.

If I had the money, I would fill mansions with beautiful stuff, not because I would want to live in them, but because I would want to see what they would look like. But I do sometimes have dreams of living in other places, too. After reading a book that was partly about the Suffolk countryside, I spent last weekend in a cottage ten miles from Southwold. I booked it because the photos on Airbnb made it look like my fantasy of an English country cottage, with limewashed beams, old clay tiles, faded dressers and a sofa draped in a patchwork quilt. Oh and, of course, a wood-burning stove. You can’t now have a country cottage without a wood-burning stove. I was meant to be going for long walks in the countryside, but could hardly drag myself out of the house.

I’d love to say I just basked in my landlady’s good taste, and my good fortune in a weekend of sharing it. I didn’t. I hit Google. I looked at every cottage for sale in Suffolk. I moved on to cottages in Sussex and Dorset. I moved on to flats in Brighton. I moved on to lofts in Manchester. Why? Goodness only knows why. It was like a fever. It was like a possession. Suddenly I was perusing thumbnail pictures of half the homes for sale in England, wondering how I could expose some brickwork here, limewash some wood there, and wondering where I’d put the pre-Civil War chest I saw in an antique shop when I was buying my first flat, and bought instead of a wardrobe or a bed.

This obsession has only hit me a few times in my life, but when it does it hits me hard. I’ll be googling till 3 a.m. I’ll be up in the night and on my iPad, swiping left or right. I see why they call it ‘property porn’. That’s what it feels like. Sweaty, shameful, an addiction you can’t seem to fight. Yes, it’s fantasy, of course it’s fantasy, but it’s not just about looking. When I’m in the grip of this fever, I want to own these places, all these places, I want to fill them with gorgeous stuff. Screw writing. I want to be a property mogul! I don’t just want to see beauty. I want to inhabit beauty. I want to own beauty. See all this? It’s mine.

Actually, I rarely buy stuff. I have no space, in my home, wardrobe or shelves. Like the young ’uns, I buy experiences: trips to the cinema, or occasionally the theatre, or to bars, cafes or restaurants to meet friends. When the property fever strikes me – usually just for a few days – I know that it’s about flirting with other lives. It’s a kind of greed. Yes, yes, I like my life. It’s not the life I planned, but it’s a pretty damn good life. But let me see what life would be like in a Georgian crescent, or a New York-style loft, or a thatched cottage with an inglenook. Let me try a million lives. Just don’t tell me my time will run out.

‘If you do not have children of your own,’ says Magnusson sternly, ‘you still have a duty to sort out your life.’ Well, sure. I don’t want to leave a mess. I don’t want to be a nuisance. I need to make a will. I must make a will. I don’t know who to leave my stuff to, but I still must make a will. And I don’t want anyone to read my diaries. I must get some stickers and write ‘throw out’. No one can read my handwriting, so I can probably save on the time and cost of a shredder.

I never had the big house, so I won’t need to ‘downsize’. I probably won’t buy all that much more stuff, but I’m not going to get rid of what I have. ‘No ideas, but in things,’ said the poet William Carlos Williams. Nobody seems quite sure what he meant, but it makes me want to cheer. I like ideas, sure I like ideas, but I really, really like the physical stuff of life. I like eating and drinking and lying on a comfortable sofa and warming cold hands by a wood-burning stove or a fire. Oh dear, it’s beginning to sound like hygge. Well, I don’t mind a little bit of hygge. But what I really like is the warp and weft and beauty of the kilim cushions I got in Istanbul, and the rug I got in Fethiye, and the carpet I got at the bazaar in Damascus, just by the Umayyad Mosque. What I really like are the colours and textures and shades I have found in the unexpected, and I now think beautiful, tapestry of my life.

Christina Patterson’s The Art of Not Falling Apart will be published by Atlantic on 3 May and can be pre-ordered now